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‘I’ve Been in the Restaurant Industry for 23 Years—These are the Biggest Cleanliness Red Flags To Look for When Walking Into a Restaurant’

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Photo: Stocksy/ Santi Nuñez

They say first impressions are everything—which might be the reason why one negative experience at a restaurant can quickly turn into the first and last time you ever go back there again. Maybe it was the roach scurrying past your feet? Or, perhaps the dirty silverware? 

In truth, running a safe and smooth restaurant operation is no small feat—and, yes, life happens. But what should you really be looking for in a restaurant when it comes to cleanliness to ultimately determine whether or not it’s up to health standards? We caught up with Rick Camac, the director of industry relations at the Institute of Culinary Education (and a restaurant industry expert with over 20 years of experience) to learn more about the red and green flags he looks out for when dining in a new establishment.

What should you look for when dining at a new restaurant?

Over the last two decades, Camac has had a fruitful career in the hospitality industry. Between assisting in the opening of 12 restaurants in the U.S. and abroad to owning two of his own for over 10 years in New York City, it’s safe to say that this industry veteran knows a thing or two about how to successful, safely, and sanitarily run a restaurant.


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But having worked so closely to the biz can also be a curse: Camac virtually can’t go to a restaurant without at least subconsciously taking note of how the operation is being run. Indeed, some things can fall under-the-radar, but here are a few restaurant cleanliness red flags that warrant an immediate no in Camac’s purview.

3 restaurant cleanliness red flags, according to an industry expert

1. Hats and gloves aren’t worn in the kitchen at all times

At the top of Camac’s list of cleanliness red flags is noticing that hats and disposable gloves aren’t being worn in the kitchen at all times by those handling the food. These kitchen essentials act as a barrier between ready-to-eat food and bare skin or hair contact which can easily contaminate food. What’s more, gloves help prevent cross-contamination and the spread of foodborne illnesses.

2. Bathrooms are not clean and neat

Walking into a dirty restroom can easily put a damper on your dining experience. What’s more, Camac says that cleanliness in the “front of the house,” aka the customer-facing side of a restaurant, is just as important as the “back of the house,” aka the kitchen. In fact, he notes that one often is a reflection of the other. In other words, a dirty bathroom usually equates to a dirty kitchen. Big sigh.

“A sure sign that your kitchen is dirty and in disarray is if you see similar signs in the front of the house or bathroom. I will not return to a venue that has a dirty bathroom. It should be maintained often in a busy venue,” Camac says.

“A sure sign that your kitchen is dirty and in disarray is if you see similar signs in the front of the house or bathroom. I will not return to a venue that has a dirty bathroom.”
—Rick Camac, director of industry relations at the Institute of Culinary Education

3. Server, runner, and busser’s uniforms are not neat and well-maintained

According to Camac, restaurant employees should also maintain a high level of personal cleanliness due to the obvious fact that they have direct contact with what you’ll be eating. As such, uniforms should be clean and staff members should be washing their hands repeatedly throughout the day. Any effort to avoid the spread of germs or contamination of food when in close proximity to it is critical in Camac’s book. If that’s not the case, it’s a no-go for him.

3 restaurant cleanliness green flags

1. Neat, clean, and sanitized work areas

This may sound obvious, but Camac’s number one cleanliness rule is, well, staying consistently clean. “Clean and sanitize work stations and utensils after each task or periodically—no less than two to three times per day,” he says. (Otherwise known in the industry as “cleaning as you go.”) He also recommends doing a deep-clean of a kitchen at least once per month.

That said, a restaurant kitchen isn’t the only kitchen that should be kept pristinely cleaned. Camac also recommends holding your own kitchen to the same standards you’d expect from a restaurant. To do so, he recommends using a clean cutting board and using a separate one for handling raw foods. He also says it’s important to clean the cutting board when switching between ingredients and using clean dish rags during each cooking session—all of which are simple steps to ensure your kitchen stays germ-free.

Camac says it’s important to ensure menus are clean, well-maintained, and are consistently up-to-date with what’s being served, as they’re a reflection and representation of the care a restaurant staff is putting into what they do.

2. Clean, well-maintained, and up-to-date menus

Menus tend to get a lot of exposure and hands-on time. That’s to say, lots of folks will handle and flip through them in a day. As such, Camac says it’s important to pay attention to these small details and ensure menus are clean, well-maintained, and are consistently up-to-date with what’s being served, as they’re a reflection and representation of the care a restaurant staff is putting into what they do.

3. Clean flatware, dishes, and glasses

Lipstick-stained glassware and flatware with leftover food remnants can be a quick giveaway when it comes to restaurant cleanliness. So, the next time you’re at a restaurant, it may behoove you to take a peek at how clean your eating tools are before digging right into your meal. The cleaner they are, the cleaner the back of the house is likely to be.

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